Federal assistance is awarded to individual scientists through their respective institutions to support meritorious projects that deepen understanding and stimulate innovation in basic and applied research. Scientists are expected, in turn, to contribute to the corpus of scientific knowledge through publications, presentations at scientific meetings, the education and training of the next generation of scientists, and data and materials sharing. While it is true that investigator-initiated discoveries generate intellectual property that may be patented and licensed for commercialization by the respective institutions, an essential aim of research is to advance scientific understanding for the public good. 1
Over the past decade, there has been a significant decline in the level of federal funds allocated to research support, as measured in constant dollars.2 As a result, many in Congress, at federal agencies, and at research institutions are seeking ways to optimize the use of federal funds by reducing administrative and regulatory costs associated with the receipt of federal research funding. There is significant concern that the scope of the current regulations and requirements diminishes the returns on the nation’s investment in research and
1As the National Research Council previously observed, “Discovery, learning, and societal engagement are mutually supportive core missions of the research university. Transfer of knowledge to those in society who can make use of it for the general good contributes to each of these missions. These transfers occur through publications, training and education of students, employment of graduates, conferences, consultations, and collaboration as well as by obtaining rights to inventions and discoveries that qualify for patent protection (intellectual property, or IP) and licensing them to private enterprises. All of these means of knowledge sharing have contributed to a long history of mutually beneficial relations among U.S. public and private universities, the private sector, and society at large.” National Research Council, Managing University Intellectual Property in the Public Interest (Washington, DC: The National Academies Press, 2010).
2It is projected that between FY 2006 and FY 2016, total federal investment in research and development will have fallen (in constant 2015 dollars) by 9.2 percent or $15.1 billion. See “Historical R&D Data,” American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), 2015, accessed August 12, 2015, http://www.aaas.org/page/historicalrd-data.
that the burdens imposed by the existing regulatory framework reduce our ability to meet the research needs of the 21st century.
Four general constructs describe the environment in which the government-university research partnership operates:
- Federal research agencies and research institutions are partners in the U.S. scientific enterprise.
- Though federal research agencies and universities share the costs of research, an increasing and significant portion of these costs is now borne by research institutions.
- The primary goal of the federal sponsorship of scientific research is to promote discovery in basic and applied research for the public good.
- There is a shared obligation to produce science of the highest quality under the highest ethical and scientific standards, with special concern for the well-being of human and animal research participants, the integrity of results, and the safety of investigators and the public.
THE PROCESS FOR ACQUIRING AND USING FEDERAL RESEARCH FUNDS
The predominant form of government support of science since World War II is the grant in aid,3 which is awarded as assistance to a research institution in support of a research team’s meritorious scientific research. The scientific questions and approach are typically proposed by an investigator; the quality of a proposal is usually reviewed and evaluated by anonymous peers;4 and agencies generally sponsor research based upon a proposal’s quality and likelihood of
3That is, money given to a local government, an institution, or a particular scholar.
4What Are the Review Criteria for Grants? 42 CFR § 52h.8 (2004) states that, in carrying out its review of a grant, a “scientific peer review group shall assess the overall impact that the project could have on the research field involved, taking into account, among other pertinent factors:
(a) The significance of the goals of the proposed research, from a scientific or technical standpoint;
(b) The adequacy of the approach and methodology proposed to carry out the research;
(c) The innovativeness and originality of the proposed research;
(d) The qualifications and experience of the principal investigator and proposed staff;
(e) The scientific environment and reasonable availability of resources necessary to the research;
(f) The adequacy of plans to include both genders, minorities, children and special populations as appropriate for the scientific goals of the research;
(g) The reasonableness of the proposed budget and duration in relation to the proposed research; and
(h) The adequacy of the proposed protection for humans, animals, and the environment, to the extent they may be adversely affected by the project proposed in the application.
contributing to the corpus of scientific knowledge and/or the overall scientific enterprise. Support for science must recognize that the significance of discoveries may be realized decades later (see Box 3-1).
The process of securing a grant involves many steps (see Box 3-2). In general, after identifying appropriate funding sources, an investigator creates a research proposal. The development of the research proposal provides researchers with an opportunity to articulate the importance of a particular scientific question and to offer a strategy for addressing that question. In collaboration with his or her institution, an applicant assembles and submits application materials to the relevant funding body. Compliant proposal packages are reviewed for scientific merit, and applications clearing merit review undergo final administrative review. Award terms and conditions are negotiated with the applicant’s institution and an award is issued to that institution on behalf of the applicant. During the course of his or her research and for the duration of the award period, the grantee and the institution are responsible for providing periodic financial, compliance, and progress reports to the awarding agency via his or her institution’s sponsored projects office.
While some proposals are contracted to support specific government initiatives or projects and other awards are made to support research through institutional capacity building (i.e., to purchase shared instrumentation needed for research) or other mechanisms,5 research grants from federal agencies have, over time, become the predominant form of federal support of the academic scientific enterprise.
Federal awards are not full-cost reimbursement mechanisms. Total award amounts are “fixed.” Federal funders do not reimburse for costs or expenditures in excess of an award amount. There are limitations on costs that may be charged to federal awards, including, for example, limitation on faculty salaries charged during the academic year or limitations on indirect costs. Consequently, the researcher’s institution is responsible for assuming costs in excess of an award amount.
Sponsored research projects are typically dynamic, and the overall effort and use of resources reflects the evolving nature of the scientific activity. The specific aims articulated in a competitive proposal often change over time as science advances within the project and within the scientific community. There is a fundamental understanding that, as the science progresses, the questions,
5NIH AREA (Academic Research Enhancement Award) grants, for instance, “support small-scale research projects at educational institutions that provide baccalaureate or advanced degrees for a significant number of the Nation’s research scientists, but that have not been major recipients of NIH support. The goals of the program are to (1) support meritorious research, (2) expose students to research, and (3) strengthen the research environment of the institution.” See “NIH Area Grand Research Objectives,” National Institutes of Health, Office of Extramural Research, accessed August 12, 2015, http://grants.nih.gov/grants/funding/area_grant_objectives.htm.
approaches, methodologies, and investigator’s capabilities may shift, refocus, and evolve in concert with his or her research discoveries, advances in the field, and/or use of resources. Sponsors generally expect investigators to respond rapidly to unexpected and emerging findings in the area of interest and to refine methodologies and employ new instrumentation as a project develops.